Feature by Hamza A.
How often does a racing game get singled out for its soundtrack? The short and correct answer is: never. There was a time when licensed soundtracks and repetitive techno beats ruled the genre, but that paradigm’s ready to shift if more and more the likes of Michael Nielson and Kaveh Cohen compose original and energetic tunes for racing games.
The album starts off with the slow and melodious “Forza Motorsport”. The sprawling notes and ‘epic’ feel of the track invokes an atmosphere not that dissimilar to soundtracks like Lords of the Rings and Gladiator. In many ways the opening track lays a good foundation upon which subsequent tracks build their work on. The slow and steady pace perfectly captures the authentic feel of a beginning to something truly great and memorable. Sounding eerily similar to “Molossus” from Batman Begins, the bombastic second track “The Grid” brings a more aggressive and heroic spin on the promise established by the previous track. It even prominently features the now-famous horns used by Hans Zimmer (albeit slightly modified). Overall, this is my personal favorite track from the album.
Forza 6’s soundtrack is unlike any other. It blends sci-fi and epic setpieces and wraps them with an energetic and kinetic layer. This is one of the few instances where the music was written specifically to compliment the horsepower and the unrelenting engine of the vehicles featured in the game. The high-octane overtones present in most of the tracks turn the cars into beasts with a heart of fury; while the occasional slow and dramatic undertone remind us that, though beasts they may be, they aren’t without story, a purpose, a reason for existing. The soundtrack may sound disorganised to the untrained ear when taken out of context, but combine it with the sheer power of the sports cars featured in the game, and you will understand how each treats the other with professional courtesy.
The next few tracks are essentially more of the same, with each successive title a fast take on the title before it. Rapid-fire percussion is literally the driving element that powers the core of these tracks. “107%” breaks the tradition by incoporating glitchy electronic sounds. It also marks a shift in relationship between the man (that’s you) and the machine (your onscreen avatar). No longer are the beasts roaring with rage and no longer are you trembling in their fumes; now you’re sitting in one of them, listening to what makes their engine scream. You’re understanding them, and they you. The relationship has now turned symbiotic. The tracks, “The Pits” and “Negative Space”, are perfect examples of this. The former is relatively heavy with a carnage, almost visceral quality to which I can visualise in my head the stitching of carbon fiber with human tissue. Not surprising, then, that the music plays during pitstops. “Negative Space” is more deliberate, inspiring, meditative even. Whether you’re listening to the album within or without context, this is the first time the player is feeling fully comfortable around the machines. Just like the ‘wand-choose-the-wizard’ ritual one must go through in the Harry Potter universe, “Negative Space” completes that ritual. The man and the machine are now a single entity.
I like how here the album transists from Hollywood-esque ‘epic’ pieces to a more techno, Tron-like affair. However, remnants are still present, as evidenced in “Rust” – one of the best compositions from the album. It starts off with a steady stream of simple synthpop beats and pounding drums that gradually give way to ethereal violins that are very reminiscent of “Lily’s Theme” from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows pt. 2. After a couple of decent tracks, “Blow the Lid Off” catches the listener off-guard via its violent mishmash of angry percussion and intense pulsating beats. This is possibly the most interesting composition and perhaps the most ‘alien’ sounding track the game has to offer. I can only assume the naming of the song is not a coincidence.
The rest of the album thereafter is pretty much comprised of tracks that are slightly different arrangements of the previous tracks. This is not to say they aren’t worthy of adulation – they are – but by this point the listener has pretty much heard everything and the last few tracks begin to feel like filler music, with little to no oomph as seen in, say, “Rust”, “The Grid” or more specifically, “The Pits”.
Kaveh Cohen and Michael Nielson, given their experience and strong attention to detail, have created one of the best soundtracks ever to grace a racing game. The eclectic mix of Hollywood-sound and techno beats won me over completely. It’s very clear these guys understood the internal machinations of a vehicle and made complimentary music to go along with it. While I cannot say the same for gameplay and graphics, I can totally see a paradigm shift with the music Cohen and Nielson have produced. I see a future where corny, half-inspired electronic music and licensed songs will not power the engine anymore; but where original complex compositions that borrow elements from the violent and unpredictable aesthetics of sci-fi and action works that will serve as audio feedback.
We also have an interview with both Kaveh and Michael, which you can read below:
Digitally Downloaded (DD): First off, how did Ninja Tracks come to be? What inspired the each of you to pursue a career in composing music, and what was the motivation behind starting your own studio?
Michael Nielson (MN): I had always wanted to be a musician, but I never truly loved being on stage. I used to create my own soundtrack mix tapes for my PC games like Skate or Die, and Double Dragon when I was a kid, so it seems like that probably was my original inspiration.
Kaveh and I met at a music store back in our early 20’s. We were friends for a long time and would collaborate on projects every once in a while. But, he had the idea of forming a company and the timing was perfect. Musically we really complimented each other and we worked really well together. Building our studio was a natural progression. It’s nice to hear what he’s working on, and also nice to get feedback right away when I’m working.
Kaveh Cohen (KC): My love of music started as a young child. I started with piano lessons but soon discovered that I could write my own little tunes. My first meaningful exposure to film music was John Williams’ score for E.T. in 1982. I remember being absolutely stunned by what I was hearing so I asked my parents to buy me the theme from E.T. on a 7” vinyl that I still have here in the studio. I would sit on the floor in front of the turntable listening to it over and over. As I got a little older, I discovered TV music as well. I would record the themes to my favorite shows like Knight Rider, Airwolf or the A-Team on a small cassette player. I think as a result I knew pretty early on that I wanted to be a composer.
Michael and I started Ninja Track back in 2004. We had been friends for years and had collaborated on projects together. At that time, we had both, independently of each other, had some success in the motion picture advertising world so when an opportunity arose for us to partner up and write together in that industry, Ninja Tracks was born. We spent several years working in different studio rooms – sometimes in separate places and for a long stretch in the same building – before we decided to build our current studio. We both had wanted a custom designed, great sounding space so when the time came, we didn’t hesitate.
DD: The two of you have always collaborated on projects together. How do your contributions impact each other, and to what extend does the dynamic play in the influencing of the structure of your compositions?
MN: We have been friends for ages and have worked together on countless projects together. So, there’s a lot of trust between us. While we are working on this score, we would trade off taking the lead on particular sections of the game.
KC: Michael and I come from different musical backgrounds so I think over the years, we’ve heavily influenced each other’s writing and approach. After so many years of collaboration, there’s an intrinsic trust present and also, an innate sense of what the other person is doing, even if we’re not working side by side. I think this is why our scores sound and feel cohesive despite the workload being split up between us.
DD: Forza Motorsport 6 marks the first time you has worked on a racing video game. With your repertoire mostly comprising of action- and fantasy-oriented works, how did you feel about the transition?
MN: It was very organic. We didn’t approach the Forza 6 score as a “racing game.” We were thinking of it more in terms of an cinematic experience. We wanted to help build a heightened sense of emotion for the game. Taking the player from the serene “Homespace,” traveling to race locations, building intensity before the flag waves, then intense races, and coming down after the race. There’s a real opportunity to take the players on a musical journey.
KC: It was a very comfortable transition as the intention for the score early on was to take a cinematic approach and combine different genres and instrumentation with the orchestra. This is very much part of our day to day process and work. I don’t think our score for Forza 6 could be described as a traditional approach to a racing game, most of which are populated with songs. As Michael mentioned, there is quite a musical journey awaiting the player as they travel through various areas of the game and it’s menus.
DD: Many of the tracks from Forza 6’s album sound exciting, energetic and operatic with a distinct sci-fi flavour. What connection does the music share with the game’s gorgeous vehicular porn production?
KC: As car lovers, we found a lot of inspiration in the cars themselves. We wanted the score to feel modern and cutting edge, much like the cars you see in the game. There’s also a very modern, “engineered” feel to motorsport so we were inspired by the culture of motorsport.
DD: What are your favourite racing video games, if any?
MN: Forza is tops in my book. It could only really get better if they strapped lasers and missile launchers onto the cars!
KC: I’ve been playing Forza for many years – since it appeared on the very first XBox. I have played some of it’s competitors but I would say Forza has been, and continues to be my personal favorite.
DD: Now that you’ve made your mark on one of the most popular racing franchises, what conclusions regarding the music in racing games have you reached?
MN: I think we’re just scratching the surface. I’d love a chance to explore the Forza themes further and see where else we can take them.
KC: I think the possibilities are endless. Of course as a player, you’d like to have high adrenaline music that supports the gameplay, however I think there are a myriad ways to approach a racing score while being cinematic and thematic and creating scope and depth and a high sense of energy.
DD: Do you see yourselves working on other games in the future? What kinds of games would you like to work on?
MN: Oh definitely. I’d love to work on a game where the music sets the tone as much as the visual do. Maybe a more adventure style game that lets the music really breath.
KC: Absolutely. I love scoring games. I’ve really enjoyed working on the projects we’ve done so far. A game with a grand orchestral score would be great. Perhaps a deep adventure game.
DD: Finally, what kind of games do you like playing yourselves?
MN: I play XBox Minecraft, Forza and FIFA with my kids a lot. I also go bonkers for a good “build your base, destroy other peoples base” mobile games. They are just an endless addiction!
KC: I’ve always loved racing games, Halo and Mortal Kombat! I love playing NHL and FIFA with my kids along with Disney Infinity and Skylanders.
– Hamza A.